Response by Pat Pattillo, retired WDFW Salmon Resource Manager Policy Lead.
About wild salmon and hatchery reform.
I think this view (My last post) is highly misinformed, but may be prevalent within the sport fishing community. While I support expanded hatchery production that is under consideration by WDFW, the Tribes, and NOAA Fisheries, I also strongly support the principles of hatchery reform. I look forward to the WDFW staff review of hatchery reform requested by the Fish and Wildlife Commission, with respect to the science that forms the basis of a proper balance between hatchery and natural origin fish.
I started my career with WDFW at a time when hatchery production was at its peak throughout the Columbia River, Washington Coast and Puget Sound. The agency made a lot of mistakes under the assumption there was no limit to the potential for hatchery fish to provide for ever-expanding fishing. But a few problems were encountered along the way. Survival of hatchery produced Chinook and coho in the 1990’s dropped to 10% or less than levels of the 70’s and early 80’s. Ocean fisheries that were defined by Columbia River coho production were nearly closed due to failures of hatchery coho produced by ODFW, WDFW and federal facilities. Production of yearling Chinook that supported the incredible year-around sport fisheries in Puget Sound essentially disappeared as the delayed release program showed that fish had changed their migration pattern and no longer produced a significant “resident” population. Funding of state and federal production certainly took a hit in the 80’s, and the cuts were made based on the poorest performing hatcheries reflecting those low survival rates and poor fishery contributions.
And then there was the increasingly dire status of our wild populations. Hatchery fish made a major contribution to spawning numbers but we really didn’t have a handle on those estimates until we began to fin-clip hatchery produced Chinook and coho beginning in Puget Sound with the 1996 brood. Once those hatchery fish began returning in 2000, we were able to make accurate estimates of the hatchery contribution to spawning populations and we discovered that the “wild” spawners in many of our rivers were mostly hatchery fish, leading to the conclusion that our wild fish were in much poorer shape than we had assumed. Where we thought we were meeting spawning escapement goals, we found that those management objectives were not achieved, and we were compelled to reconsider those spawning goals realizing that the balance between wild and hatchery fish was not what we had thought.
We (Tribes and WDFW) developed new objectives for each river system that would lead to self-sustaining natural spawning populations while continuing to support hatchery production that would be the backbone of our fisheries. Those new objectives also are the basis for justifying “take” of naturally produced Chinook and coho listed under the ESA and allowing the permitting required for our fisheries to be opened. Hatchery Genetic Management Plans are also required in order to produce any hatchery fish under the ESA, since “take” is broadly defined to include the effects of too many hatchery fish mixing with naturally produced fish on the spawning grounds. Those effects are real, as scientific studies have repeatedly shown, but the impact on wild populations varies greatly and the hatchery management approaches that will achieve a robust, self-sustaining, natural spawning population in the future are different for each river system.
Natural processes including ensuring diversity of these wild fish with respect to spawn timing, distribution throughout watersheds, age structure and many other characteristics of healthy populations take a long time – many generations and decades, not just a few years. So it is entirely unrealistic to expect that policies and programs developed to address the very real problem of poor health with our naturally produced Chinook and coho will achieve their intended outcomes in as short a period of time as ten years.
Reviewing the FWC policies for operating our hatcheries is a good thing. It is entirely appropriate to question periodically the scientific foundation of those policies and programs, and to make adjustments where new or improved scientific findings apply. But abandoning the overarching principles of hatchery reform and our fishery management plans, such as has been proposed by proponents of the “a fish is a fish is a fish” view of the world is not an alternative worthy of our consideration and would lead to an unacceptable future with closure of our hatcheries and closure of our fisheries.
Thanks for considering my thoughts on this important matter.